What’s in a Doxology?
Upon my arrival 18 years ago I learned that one of the longstanding traditions at Marble was that of concluding worship each Sunday by singing the Doxology. Though this custom is not widespread, I thought it was a powerful way to sum up the experience of the preceding sacred hour and to gear up for re-entry into the world as transformed, recharged lights for Christ. In the fall of 1996 it was decided that our singing of the Doxology should follow the collection of the offering, as it does in many other churches. However, those of you who attended worship last Sunday are aware that we have decided to resume this Marble tradition, likely begun under Dr. Peale, of ending with a Doxology as the summation of our worship and the summoning of our witness just before we “depart to serve.”
Ah... but there’s that little word “a” that has snuck in, as in “a” Doxology. We in the church sometimes think of our traditions as being The tradition, thereby unintentionally excluding others or precluding the possibility of creating new, equally powerful traditions for the future. For at least the next several weeks we will be shifting to a different tune and an alternate text as we conclude worship by singing a new Doxology.
Doxology comes from a Greek word meaning “to say” (logia) “glory” (doxa). It often takes the form of a concluding verse to a canticle, psalm or hymn. One famous doxology is the Gloria Patri (Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, etc.) that I remember singing in church as a child. This is known as the “Lesser Doxology,” as opposed to the “Greater Doxology” which is the Gloria in Excelsis (Glory be to God on high). One of the hallmarks of any doxology is its reaffirmation of faith in the Triune God (Holy Trinity) in whatever language or gender one chooses to express it.
The text to the most well known Doxology was penned by the English cleric Thomas Ken (1637-1711). Ken attended Winchester College and was ordained in 1662. After serving various parishes he returned to his alma mater in 1672 and for a time served as a chaplain in Winchester Cathedral. It was there that he composed three hymns for the students to sing in the morning, evening, and at midnight. Two of these appear in our hymnal: “Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun” (71) and “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night” (77). Each hymn concludes with Ken’s now-famous Doxology verse. And, it should be noted, neither was originally sung to Old Hundredth, the tune now often associated with this text.
Old Hundredth – surely one of the centuries’ magnificent hymn tunes – first appeared in the Genevan Psalter in 1551. Before the Protestant Reformation, Psalms were chanted in Latin by a select few - the priests and monks, basically - as congregants looked on. Enter John Calvin, who felt strongly that people should not observe worship but be active participants in it: "It is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love." The French composer Loys Bourgeois (1510-1560) worked to compile a collection of metrical hymn tunes to which the Psalms could be sung by ordinary people. In time Bourgeois’ tune Old Hundredth and Ken’s Doxology text were wed, and their timeless union formed a hymn that is still sung in Protestant churches worldwide.
The alternate Doxology tune we began singing last Sunday is named Lasst Uns Erfreuen. This tune is often associated with the beloved hymn text “All Creatures of Our God and King” as well as others. It is an Easter hymn which first appeared in Cologne in 1623. The name of the tune comes from the opening line of its original German text that means, “Let us delight.” The tune was first published in English hymnals in 1906 in an arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and this is the one we sing to this day. Lasst Uns Erfreuen is one of the most majestic, soaring and transcendent melodies in Christian hymnody; it literally lifts the voice and spirit on wings of praise. The tune is considerably longer than Old Hundredth, however, so please have a glance at the program so you don’t run out of words half way through! There are some “Alleluias” sprinkled about, and we are using an alternate text that is inclusive and gender-neutral.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” We begin by publicly proclaiming with our physical being – our voice – that God is the source of all our blessings, our gifts, our world, the very breath of life with which we sing. Our offering of thanks to God is but a response to what God is always giving us. God’s waterfall of blessings never dries up - it’s a ceaseless flow, not a rationed trickle. When viewed from the right angle of spirit it sometimes looks like a deluge.
“Praise God all creatures here below.” We belong to a mighty chorus of praise that includes all creation - all who have life and breath. The act of joining our praise with others is a sacrament – an outward and visible sign – of the unity we share as spiritual beings on this human journey. And it is not limited to mere humanity. Do the birds not awaken us with their wordless Doxology each morning and the crickets serenade us with theirs after sundown? To whom could they be singing if not their Maker? Let us then do likewise, singing with the uniquely human gift of language and awareness.
“Praise God with saints in heaven above.” We join our voices in concert with those who have gone before, those we have loved who now live eternally to sing a song of praise the likes of which we can only imagine. Picture yourself standing in the middle of Yankee stadium during the 7th-inning stretch as the crowd belts out God Bless America. That exuberant packed stadium is but a miniscule metaphor for what the Apostle Paul calls “the great cloud of witnesses” who surround us from afar, cheering us on as we run life’s race and leading us in singing a cosmic, unending Doxology.
“Praise Jesus Christ who shows God’s love, Praise the Spirit, Holy Spirit.” We conclude by giving honor to the co-equal persons of the Trinity. We declare our praise for Jesus - God’s love personified, and for the Holy Spirit – God’s indwelling presence in our life and in our world. It is this same Spirit who guides us out the doors of the church as we soon depart to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
As we return to this tradition of singing our Doxology at the conclusion of worship, let us remember to sing it not only with our lips but in our lives. In the week ahead may your life be a living Doxology as you “say glory” in all that you do, with all that you have, and through all that you are.